Football pools, often referred to as “The Pools”, are competitions based on predicting the outcome of association football matches set to take place in the coming week.
Several different companies such as Littlewoods, Vernons, Zetters and Brittens have organised similar games, the most famous of which was historically known as Treble Chance. Competitors were given a list of football matches set to take place over the coming week, and attempted to pick a line of eight of them whose results would be worth most points by the scoring scheme, traditionally by crossing specific boxes on a printed coupon. A proportion of the players’ combined entry fees were distributed among the competitors whose entries were worth the highest scores.
Entries were traditionally entered by post or via members of the public acting as Agents or Collectors. Collectors walked a route door to door, delivering forms and cash to a central office, taking a percentage of the money as a fee. Legally they were agents of the entrants, not the pools company. There have been a few cases whereby a rogue Agent has fraudulently withheld players’ stake money, even though one entrant had actually chosen a set of jackpot-winning fixtures. These days, Internet applications are also accepted.
Business for Collectors was drummed up by “canvassing”, where a team of company agents knocked on doors in an area of a town or housing estate.
Scoring schemes varied over the years. The current Treble Chance games use a scoring scheme which awards three points to score draws (matches where both team scored the same, strictly positive, number of goals), two points to no-score draws (matches where neither team scored a goal) and one point to both home wins (matches where the home team scored more goals than the away team) and away wins (matches where the away team scored more goals than the home team). The most famous historical scoring scheme differentiated between home wins and away wins, awarding one and a half points for games resulting in away wins. A scoring scheme used for only one year split score draws into two catgories, awarding three points only for matches ending 1-1 and two and a half points for higher-scoring score draws.
The total score of each line would be calculated, up to a maximum of 24 points. The highest scoring line achieved by any player in that particular week’s competition would be declared to be worth the top dividend, with a large proportion of the prize pool awarded to the players responsible for submitting the highest-scoring lines. Large football pools would award second and subsequent dividends, splitting smaller proportions of the prize pool among players who had submitted lines scoring nearly as many points; at its peak, the Littlewoods Treble Chance game would offer up to six dividends.
During the summer, when football leagues were not in operation in the United Kingdom, competitions were based on the results of football matches taking place in Australia. Matches which were postponed would often have their results adjudicated, for the sake of the football pools results, by a board known as the Pools Panel; The Times reports that the Pools Panel was formed in 1963 when a particularly cold winter scrapped football for three weeks running. Panel members included retired footballers with international experience and retired referees.
Before their popularity dwindled, pools results were published in most national newspapers a day or two after the Saturday on which the matches were played. Grids marking the points totals per game were sometimes published, against which your pools coupon could be aligned to read off the scores.
The BBC television programme Grandstand used to broadcast the winning match numbers and any Pools Panel verdicts as part of its Final Score segment in the late afternoon. Remarkably, only two people have so far announced the classified football results on the programme since its inception in 1958 – Len Martin until his death in 1995 and, since then, Tim Gudgin.
With scores being read out on radio and television it was also common to relay the message “claims by telegram” for days when a few draws occurred (with correspondingly few winners), through “claims by registered mail only” for days when more winners were expected, to “no claims” when there were likely to be so many claimants that the mail would have been overwhelmed.
Typically a fraction of a penny would be charged for each line entered, though players often had the option to play each line at a higher stake and so receive a higher share of the pool should their line prove a winner. Accordingly, players would usually submit many different lines in a single entry. Popular ways to do this were “full perm” entries, where 10 (or 11, or more) matches were selected and every possible combination of eight matches selected from the ten (etc.) was entered as a single line. As there are C(10,8) = 45 ways to select eight matches from ten, the cost of such an entry was 45 times the cost of entering a single line. Note that the term “perm” was used despite the relevant mathematical operation being combination rather than permutation, as the order in which the eight matches were selected was irrelevant. The pools companies, many daily newspapers, and the sporting press also issued “plans”, which were subsets of full perms: these enable the punter to cover more matches for the same stake, with the proviso that even if 8 draws were in the selections, they might not all be in a single line of the plan (but well designed plans could give a guarantee something like ‘if the plan hits 8 draws it must win at least a 3rd dividend’).
The largest prizes would be awarded when only one line was entered scoring the maximum number of points; typically this would occur when only eight or nine matches ended in score draws, so only one player would have the line scoring the maximum. These biggest jackpot prizes could be several hundred thousand pounds, sometimes even more than a million. Prizes depended on the number of players and the cost per line, which varied over the years; one winner, Viv Nicholson, gained notoriety by declaring she was going to “spend, spend, spend” after winning GBP 152,319 in 1961. The story of her subsequent divorces, remarriages, extravagance and eventual bankruptcy was eventually made into a musical named after the famous quote.
At the other extreme, payouts of less than a pound were quite common in lower dividends when many entries won. Most “punters” could expect to receive at least one low payout if they played for long enough.
Littlewoods football pools was founded in 1923, Vernons in 1925, Zetters in 1933, and Brittens in 1946. The Treble Chance game was also inaugurated in 1946.
The popularity of the Treble Chance game was due to the fact it offered a potential single large jackpot at a time when no other form of gambling in the United Kingdom did; premium bonds were not offered until 1957 and never offered a jackpot which was as high. The popularity of football pools in the UK declined dramatically after the introduction of the National Lottery in 1994, which offered larger jackpots still. Some football pools offer additional ways to win based on scores of football matches at half-time, or football matches in which particularly many goals are scored.
The football pools did not fall under gambling legislation because they claimed to be competitions of skill, rather than chance; however, their rules typically stated that all transactions were “binding in honour only”. Typically, between one quarter and one half the entry fees taken would be returned to the players as prizes. Companies organising football pools were heavily taxed; in 1991, the level of tax levied was reduced from 40% of turnover to 37½% of turnover. Additionally, from 1975 on, 2½% of the entry fees went to form the Football Trust which distributed money to football throughout the UK, most famously to help clubs redevelop their stadiums in line with the recommendations made by the Taylor Report.
The Littlewoods Football Pools Collection which shows the history of the pools, is held by the National Football Museum.
Other games offered by football pools companies take the form of “8 homes”, “4 draws”, “5 aways” or the like, where lines consisting of a smaller number of matches are selected and a line is deemed to have won if all the selected matches result in home wins, away wins or draws (irrelevant of the size of the draw) respectively. The cost per line is generally higher; because these attract far fewer players, prizes are generally lower. Some football pools companies additionally organised lotteries, betting on lottery results or spot the ball competitions at various points.
Continental European Pools
Similar football pools competitions are frequently known as toto competitions on Continental Europe. While the principle of requiring entrants to predict the results of football matches in advance remains the same, the details are fundamentally different. The name toto derives from totalisator machines which are used to process the parimutuel betting involved.
Typically, a list of 13 matches for the coming week will be given. Pools entrants have to select the result of each one, whether it will be a home win, an away win or neither of these, typically by marking each match with either a 1, a 2 or a N (sometimes X). It is possible to enter two or three results for one or more matches, in which case the entry is treated as a number of separate entries for all possible combinations given; marking two possible results for each of five matches and all three possible results for each of four matches will result in submitting 2 * 2 * 2 * 2 * 2 * 3 * 3 * 3 * 3 = 32 * 81 = 2592 different entries. All entries submitting 13 correct predictions will be declared to have won the top prize; sometimes, prizes for fewer correct predictions are also awarded.
The Intertoto Cup competition was inaugurated by the football pools companies of central Europe to provide matches for their toto coupons during the summer months.
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